There’s an art to riding a horse up a hill and it’s something I’m very particular about. There are times when I’ve been riding side-by-side with an inexperienced student on horses of equal training and fitness, but by the time we get to the top of an incline my horse is sweaty and working hard, where the student’s horse hasn’t made a stitch of effort. Inevitably, though, I coach them into working their horse harder as we go along, subtly moving him into lateral positions such as shoulder-in or leg-yield, flexing and bending, and adding in short bursts of medium paces.
I can’t stand to see horses dribbling uphill or pulling themselves along with their front legs. To get the benefit of working on slopes, horses need to be ridden in a rounded outline and, as a rider, you need to be conscious of creating equal swing and push from both hindlegs. This takes concentration and discipline, but developing even musculature and strength is hugely beneficial to your horse’s long-term soundness and development. A horse who works evenly from his hindlegs will find his training easier than one who is crooked or has a weakness on one side.
Likewise, there’s an art to riding a horse down a hill. Travelling downhill in good balance requires strength and tactful riding. The agreement with your horse has to be that he’s allowed to come above the bridle if he holds his own balance and stays light on your contact. Running on his forehand downhill is uncomfortable and puts you both in a vulnerable position if he trips or stumbles.
Exercise 1: Creating power by working equally up hill
Horses can develop and access their power only when they’re working and pushing equally from both hindlegs. One of the best ways to gauge your horse’s straightness is to ride him up a slope.
When riding up a slope, I often follow a pattern that helps me maintain the rhythm through several changes of bend and lateral positioning. A typical pattern would be…
• six strides flexing right
• six strides of leg-yield left
• six strides of shoulder-in right
• change diagonal
• six strides flexing left
• six strides of leg-yield right
• six strides of shoulder-in left
Listen carefully to the sound of your horse’s footfalls and make sure you maintain his rhythm while changing the bend and riding laterally. Horses will often drop off the pace when challenged with a lateral movement or flexing on their more difficult rein. Be aware of how he feels down each rein and against your leg. Is he easier on one rein or does he feel stronger on one diagonal? This will give you clues as to his strength, development and any weaknesses you need to work on in your training.
Exercise 2: Building strength by walking downhill
Walking downhill encourages horses to loosen off and explore a greater range of movement. The sloping terrain guides his hindlegs further under his body, rounding and lifting his back.
You’ll be fairly passive when walking downhill – use the time to feel your hips travelling forward in an exaggerated movement as your horse’s hindlegs lift underneath you.
Focus on stabilising your balance using your core, while allowing the movement of your horse’s hindlegs to bring each of your hips forward as he starts to swing through his back. This swing and lift builds strength in his topline and abdominals.
A particularly short-striding horse may benefit from taps with your whip on his shoulder as his front foot leaves the ground to remind him to step out with his forearm and not block the movement from behind.
You can ready more of Lucinda’s top tips for optimising your hillwork in the October issue of Horse&Rider, on sale 24 August 2017.